Making the American Dream a reality
The US needs big ideas and ballsy politicians.
While Washington was abuzz last Tuesday over the third visit to Congress by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insiders were finally trying to pass a bill that would fund the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through to September.
The bill has been the subject of a prolonged battle between the House of Representatives and the Senate, both of which have proposed their own versions of it. The attempts to stall the bill appear more tactical than political. The DHS funds the coastguard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the secret service and border control. The delay in getting this bill passed would have made life harder for these bodies at a time when politicians on all sides insist that robust national security is paramount.
Congress’s inability to pass the bill has been interpreted by onlookers as a reflection of the lack of leadership in Washington. The common narrative runs that John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the House Republican leader, has lost control of his party, and has to kowtow to the whims of the conservative wing. Obama, on the other hand, is presented as sitting idly on the sidelines, pen-in-hand, just waiting to sign the bill.
While the lack of leadership in Washington, and among US political elites in general, is a genuine problem today, it isn’t the whole story. This specific lack of leadership on particular bills and issues is underpinned by a much broader dearth of moral authority and political purpose. It is within this state of affairs that the very basic processes of government, in this case the passing of a simple funding bill for an supposedly essential government department, becomes the main event. It’s no wonder that the American public is so underwhelmed by contemporary politics.
As we have argued before on spiked, at the heart of the current crisis of democracy is the fact that, in lieu of presenting the public with big ideas, alternatives that might improve society as a whole, politicians today depress expectations by turning politics into mere process. The great tragedy is that big, aspirational ideas are precisely what the US needs – and what the American people want.
US infrastructure is a case in point. As anyone who drives on the US highway network, flies regularly on domestic flights or tries to rely on public transport will know, the US transport network is in varying states of disrepair. This is a practical problem for which big solutions are required. Whereas today these issues seem uninspiring, they haven’t always been. In the past, practical policies have laid the foundation for societal gains, and politicians have sold them as such. Better roads, better communications networks, or an increase in energy supply mean more freedom, productivity and wealth for all. And, in the past, politicians could convincingly sell infrastructure policies as integral to our communal pursuit of the American Dream.
This strikes to the heart of the problem with American politics today. The aspiration embodied by the American Dream – the desire for things to be better, faster, newer, bigger and best – finds no favour among the new political class. Instead, they opt for achievable and depressing goals, bound up in ideas of sustainability, of ‘making do’. This is a fundamental and problematic shift in the American political outlook.
Of course, we shouldn’t just be making do, and all is not bleak in this seemingly neverending American winter of 2015. The fact that people from across the world still want to come to America to fulfill their dreams, to join a society that they see as dynamic, exciting and full of potential, is testament to the great potential of America to improve lives and offer opportunity for all. It is the drive of the American public, both migrant and native, that our political leaders need to start adopting. It is this aspirational spirit that politicians should be judging their own achievements against.
The US political system was built on big, Enlightenment ideas – freedom of speech, freedom of conscience – and a desire to challenge the old European order. The ideological battles that the founding fathers engaged in mandated a rigorous political structure, worthy and capable of supporting the debates that they knew would follow. The political system they created, with Congress at its core, has been tried and tested through times of deep ideological divide – most powerfully during the civil war. Now, Congress has become a purely bureaucratic place in which to argue the relative merits of one-week, three-week or six-month departmental funding extensions.
We need to reinvigorate those Enlightenment ideals – those inspiring visions that made the Constitution and the Bill of Rights a reality. We need bigger, more aspirational ideas that are worthy of debate and excitement. In short, we need more American dreams.
Neil Ross is US programme director at spiked.
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